Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sonnet 56 by William Shakespeare

This week I've managed to keep my days straight, so I know it's Wednesday. And it being Wednesday, I've got a Shakespeare post for you.

Sonnet 56
by William Shakespeare

Sweet love, renew thy force. Be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharpened in his former might.
So, love, be thou. Although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad int'rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view.
  Else call it winter, which, being full of care,
  Makes summer's welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, meaning that it's written in iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), with the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG Note that Shakespeare has taken a bit of liberty in the lines ending with "fullness" and "dullness" (which would have been exact rhymes in his time - that's not the liberty taken). Both fullness and dullness consist of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one - something which is known as a "feminine ending", which is totally allowed in iambic ptenameter now and agian, and which results in 11-syllable lines. Only if you count up pronounced syllables in those lines, you end up with 12 and 13 pronounced syllables, assuming you enunciate all of them. My guess is that the "even" in the "fullness" line is supposed to be elided to the poetic "e'en", which would take that one back down to a standard iambic-pentameter-with-feminine-ending length. The line ending with dullness is a bit trickier - if you say "spirit" quickly (with both syllables getting stressed), then count the "ual" of perpetual as a single slurred vowel sound rather than saying it "you - uhl", you end up at the iambic-pentameter-with-feminine-ending length as well. Tricky, but do-able. And then the penultimate line (Else call it winter, which, being full of care), which requires both syllables of being to be unstressed in order for the meter to work. Very tricky stuff, Mr. S!

Analysis: In the first four lines, Shakespeare addresses love - but love as a notion or spirit or emotion. He implicitly compares love to appetite (for food), urging love to stay keener/sharper than the appetite for food, which is quickly satisfied today, returning again tomorrow. His analogy, therefore, is read by some people to be a comparison between lust (appetite for "love") and hunger (appetite for food).

In the second four lines, the "love" he addresses is a person (the Fair Youth), urging him not to get his head turned by others, but to realize that even if he's tired of it today, his "hunger" will return tomorrow. The use of the word "dullness" is probably to indicate depression or apathy, and not, say, stupidity. The poem is a wish that absence will make the heart grow fonder, essentially.

The volta or "turn", a characteristic element of any good sonnet, occurs in the next four lines, where Shakespeare turns his attention to his actual point: he and the Fair Youth, in love though they are, have been separated for a time. Although the precise circumstance is not clear - whether they are actually at some distance from one another, or are merely precluded from spending time together as they might wish - Shakespeare finds an analogy for their circumstance. He makes reference to the physical separation of amorous young lovers separated by an ocean, waiting eagerly to see the other person once again. This particular set-up sounds like a reference to the story of Hero and Leander, which I discussed a bit in this post about Romeo & Juliet during last year's Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month. The story was quite popular during Shakespeare's time. It was the subject of a poem by Christopher Marlowe (unfinished at the time of his death), as well as an influence on Shakespeare for Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the very least. Knowing that, I don't think it's a stretch to say that Shakespeare referenced the story of Hero & Leander in his sonnets as well.

The final couplet "turns" the poem further still by introducing a new analogy: Think of our separation as winter, which is "full of care" in Shakespeare's poem - a time of isolation and introspection, perhaps? - making summer (or the lover's reunion) that much more wished-for, and that much more "rare" - a word that here means "marked by unusual quality, merit or appeal" rather than "seldom occurring". No matter what, this poem expresses hope that absence will managed to rekindle the strength of their love. If one subscribes to the interpretation that brings lust in at the start of this poem, it will be quite a reunion, no?

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william sutton said...

Nice metrical analysis!
I agree lines 6 and 8 have to elide even and spirit and perpetual or the feminine line doesn't work. A poetical emptying of the mouth whilst filling the eyes!
in fact 'although today thou fill thy hungry eyes' is ten syllables and another example of an iambic line within two lines. A femine version of this happens in sonnet 110: 'that i have looked on truth askance and strangely'
another masc line is in 120: 'how hard true sorrow hits and soon to you'
and 28: 'the other to complain how far i toil,'which makes enough examples to make you think he did this kind of thing on purpose?!

I can't help but think of two spent lovers when reading this sonnet. Also a kind of punning on male bits partner sonnet to the female bits puns in 151: Love is too young to know what conscience is.

i look forward to more posts. and i'll check your archives to see what else you've written on our will.

if you're interested i've recorded the sonnets and they are online at:

the link is then at the top of the page under: Hear all 154 sonnets here.

William S.

Kelly Fineman said...

William S: Thanks so much for coming by! Recording all the sonnets is an enormous undertaking - and impressive, too.